The Mighty Ben

Ben Folds Five - Fleming & John

Park West - Chicago

May 3, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1999, Volume 6, #6

Written by John Metzger


Ben Folds Five is a more mature group than most folks give it credit for being. Each of its three albums has shown signs of growth, though the group has had a tendency to mask its true self behind humorous stage antics, sarcastic lyrics, and uncooperative interviews. At times, the ensemble just doesn't seem to take itself all that seriously, often preferring the role of the class clown but nothing could be further from the truth.

Ben Folds Five knows that it can't rely on a teenage audience forever, and on its latest release The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the band moves beyond the blame-game of angry young men and into more introspective territory. It's not that the group hasn't been there before. However on this outing, there's no silliness between the song tracks, and the band tackles topics ranging from death to more mature examinations of relationships.

There's no doubt Ben Folds Five is experiencing some growing pains as witnessed at its performance at Chicago's Park West on May 3. Give the group credit for trying to guide its youthful audience into its new world. It persevered in delivering ten of the eleven tracks from its latest album, despite losing some of its fans in the process. Still, there was a core group that hung on every note the band played, and these folks sang along to every word.

Throughout the evening, Ben Folds Five utilized a gong, a timpani, a synthesizer, and a theremin to embellish its sound. its music has always been a hodge-podge of classical, jazz, lounge, pop, and progressive rock, but with the heavy reliance of songs from its latest effort, this particular concert captured the spirit of a Pete Townshend-style rock opera.

On Don't Change Your Plans, Ben Folds Five explored Burt Bacharach-infused pop, Your Redneck Past at times sounded like early XTC, and Lullabye could have come straight from Elton John's vast catalog of material. All of the arrangements were focused around the intricate piano musings of Folds, while drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge played with a more traditional style than on past tours. In particular, Sledge strayed away from his usual fuzzed-out bass sound to provide a more solid foundation rather than a screeching lead. Even earlier songs like Fair were somewhat revamped to include a more jazz-oriented motif.

As Ben Folds Five dug deeper into some of the most interesting and experimental of the songs from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, portions of the audience turned away from the band and began to socialize. Narcolepsy blended the raging bombast of the North Carolina trio's past with beautiful piano overtures. Regrets, performed this evening for the first time, was a little rough around the edges. Nevertheless, the band lost little from the heavily orchestrated version on the album. In fact, it fully explored the song's blend of jazz and '60s pop and masterfully recreated the recorded version's orchestral surges.

Not that Ben Folds Five fully abandoned their past. Instead, it just contained it to a few selections scattered over the course of the concert. Most notable was the raging Song for the Dumped, which concluded the show. Folds totally let loose as he shrieked in a faux-metal singing-style and ranted with sarcastic humor on the woes rock stars face on the road. In addition, the familiar stage antics returned as Folds dove over his piano, sending roadies scattering to protect the equipment. It was enough to please the audience, and Folds was happy to oblige even as he looked forward and tried to lead his fans to group's new-found horizons.

Fleming & John opened the show with one of the most excruciating sets in recent memory. Lead singer Fleming McWilliams' ear-splitting shrieks were only made worse by the group's '70s stage antics. Occasionally, the band showed some talent when they moved into jazzy horn arrangements, courtesy of John Mark Painter, but these were far too few and brief. The band's set can only be described as retro in a very bad way.

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!


Copyright 1999 The Music Box